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Dead Formality

April 12, 2023

The third article in our series supporting prayer in the South Georgia Conference focuses on Francis Asbury, one of the first two bishops of the newly created Methodist Episcopal Church and the architect of the Methodist movement in America. Asbury spent 45 years in the colonies and young country riding horseback and preaching to anyone who would listen. He was the most recognizable person in America during his time, and it is estimated that he rode 250,000 miles and preached 16,000 sermons throughout is ministry. However, Asbury’s commitment to his prayer life rivals any other numbers that can be offered.
“My present practice is, to set apart about three hours out of every twenty-four for private prayer; but Satan labours much to interrupt me; nevertheless, my soul enjoys a sweet and peaceful nearness to God, for the most part, in these duties” (Journal, December 8, 1776). What Asbury meant by private prayer included time for private worship, confession of sins, thanksgiving for all God’s blessings and intercessions for others. Can we imagine for one moment what the world would be like if people spent three hours of every day in prayer with God? That would be 45 minutes in worship, 45 minutes confessing one’s sins, 45 minutes in gratitude for one’s blessings and 45 minutes asking for blessings for others. Who could we be if we were to follow Asbury’s example? 
To answer that question, we must first answer the question, “Who are we now?” According to the Western Washington Medical Group, the top three physical ailments for Americans are chronic disease, addiction, and mental health. Some reasons for the large percentage of chronic diseases are poor nutrition, excessive use of alcohol, insufficient exercise and tobacco use. According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2020 50% of people over 12 years of age used alcohol in the past month, 61% of alcohol drinkers were considered binge drinkers, and over 100,000 people died from overdoses from March 2020 to April 2021. According to Mental Health America, over 50 million Americans are suffering from mental health issues with over 12 million having serious thoughts of suicide. These figures show that modern people are facing grave difficulties.
So, could three hours a day spent in private prayer help cure what ails us? Counting our blessings daily for 45 minutes could help lower blood pressure and slow our breathing. Walking for 45 minutes while in private worship could provide sufficient exercise of both mind and body. Spending 45 minutes a day reminding ourselves that we are not perfect but we serve a perfect God could help us with humble prayer and fervent praise as advocated by Charles Wesley. Thinking of our neighbors and their needs might remind us that we are brothers and sisters in the body of Christ that should be treated with faith, hope, and love. So, yes, I believe adhering to Asbury’s schedule would cure many of our modern ailments.
Asbury also wrote in his journal, “So prone is man to grow languid in devout exercises, that without fresh and powerful exertions he will soon sink into dead formality” (Journal, January 2, 1775). Maybe we have sunk into a dead formality with our prayer life, which is leading us to death in other areas of our lives. As Bishop Graves calls the South Georgia Conference to prayer, may we also follow Francis Asbury’s practice of long, fresh and powerful prayer so as not to sink into both literal and spiritual death.
Anne Packard serves as Conference Historian and director of the Arthur J. Moore Methodist Museum on St. Simons Island. Contact her at director@mooremuseum.org.

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